Conserving Our History

The MSV’s beautiful Broadwood piano

by Victoria L. Kidd

As an object, it’s simply enchanting, even in its current disassembled state. It’s longer than any piano the average person will have ever seen, giving it a commanding presence. The case is veneered with a strongly patterned burl walnut that has a distinctive swirly appearance entreating the eye to get lost while following its curves. Its ebony and ivory keys date to a period prior to the global consciousness of how the ivory trade has imperiled the majestic elephants from which the material is stolen. Its curves beg to be touched.
Essentially, it fills the room, as it has since it was produced in the 1800s. Through the careful efforts of Sue Manley and Israel Schossev of Israel Schossev Pianos, this beautiful object will once again be ready to play when it returns to its home at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley.

The MSV’s Broadwood piano was once a central piece of the “country house” narrative that museum benefactor Julian Wood Glass Jr. and his long-term partner R. Lee Taylor strived to convey through the appointments and decorations of the Glen Burnie House, a beautiful showplace surrounded by six acres of formal gardens.

Glass, a man who loved entertaining friends at his home, established the Glass-Burnie Foundation to make certain his collections, the house, and nearby Rose Hill (the Glass ancestral homestead) would continue to be a place for public enjoyment after long his death in 1992. The Glen Burnie Historic House and Gardens opened in 1997. Lee Taylor (who lived in an apartment on the grounds following the dissolution of his relationship with Glass in the 1970s) was curator of gardens until his death in 2000.

The museum would open on the grounds in 2005 with the purpose of presenting the impressive collection of objects Glass left behind. Among those objects is a piano that Lee and Julian believed was produced by English piano manufacturer Broadwood and Sons in the 1820s. According to A. Nicholas Powers, Curator of Collections for the MSV, that assumption is most likely incorrect. A conservator at Colonial Williamsburg dated it to around 1875, making it a centennial piece.

While its true age is a mystery, what is known is that the piece was purchased on July 8, 1905 for $150 from C. G. Sloan & Co., an auction house in Washington, D.C.

Powers conveys that Katherine Glass Greene purchased the piano for use at the Fort Loudoun Seminary, an organization that is extremely important to the history of women’s education in the Valley.

“We have a photograph of the piano at the seminary,” he says. “It’s labeled ‘In the Office’ and dates to about 1911.” Powers relays that the seminary closed in 1925, but Katherine continued to live on the premises, and the piano likely remained with her. “Katherine died in 1948, and her inventory listed two pianos. From here it gets murky.

Presumably, the piano passed by inheritance to a family member, perhaps Julian Wood Glass Sr. Regardless, it remained in storage at Fort Loudoun through 1954 when it was caught up in a fire. Finally, it came into Julian Jr.’s collection, perhaps through inheritance from his father. Several other family heirlooms passed that way and Julian kept it in the drawing room at Glen Burnie.”

It’s an important piece in the museum collection, as it helps tell several stories. In addition to being the piano Greene used to teach music, piano and harmony, the Broadwood played an important role in entertaining at Glen Burnie. “For Julian, it was an heirloom from his aunt, but he also had it played occasionally during parties to fulfill his image as an English country gentleman,” Powers says.

While the piano was initially restored in 1986 by Miller Piano Shop in Tulsa, Oklahoma, current conservation efforts are much more meticulous and have focused on the soundboard, pinblock, strings and hammers. The cumulative efforts will assure the piano has many years of life ahead of it. Sue Manley has been working on the piano for some time now. She came to this line of work only recently and now can hardly imagine doing anything else.

A friend introduced her to Israel Schossev, a man renowned for his knowledge of the intricate mechanics that give pianos their voice. Schossev is the lead piano technician and an adjunct professor of piano technology for Shenandoah University. He works to restore and conserve pianos through his business Israel Schossev Pianos, but he has worked for Steinway & Sons and another private company he owned in New York prior to his current business. Manley, who has never worked on pianos before, would come to work for him in 2014.

“I started with small tasks, mostly working on the actions,” she says, referring to the mechanical assembly that translate key strikes into the hammer’s motion, thus creating the sound that occurs with strings are struck. “For a long time all I did was steam felts, cut and replace felts, clean felts, and fix any bits of the action that needed attention. Once I had finished the action work on all the pianos currently in the shop, I went to Israel and asked what else there was to do.”

Schossev recognized Manley’s attention to detail and immediately knew he’d found someone who shared his passion for the work. “Sue is a hard worker,” he says. “She gives these pianos attention and respect, and she does not oppose the intricate work involved.”

Exemplary of that intricate work is the task Manley was faced with next. With the work on the actions complete, she moved on to polishing piano screws. Yes, screws. That is the level of detail the pair have when it comes to their work.

“I spent countless days just polishing screws,” she says with only the slightest hint of exasperation. “Do you know how many screws are in an piano? Lots. There are lots of screws in a piano.”

While some larger screws can be polished using machinery, many are small and require lots of hands-on attention. From there, she would go on to learn how to French polish pianos and complete other tasks necessary to the restoration process. (French polishing is a finishing technique that creates a high-gloss surface with a deep color. It’s a complex technique that requires a high degree of skill and a commitment to very laborious and physical work.)

Manley would apply learned techniques to her work with the MSV’s beloved Broadwood. “We are mostly concentrating on the internal structures of the piano,” she explains. “I’ve spent weeks scraping the finish inside. It was just… I don’t know… yucky inside. It needed attention, desperately. We stained it, and I applied a light French polish to protect it. We really worked to clean it up, despite the fact that no one will ever even see that work unless they actually lay underneath the piano.”

Nonetheless, the work of her hands contributes to the story of this beautiful object, and she feels that she will be forever connected to it in some way. “When it’s finished and returned to the museum,” she remarks, “I will probably go there and just stare at it. I feel more like a part of this community than I did before. I’ll be able to look at it and say, ‘I had the chance to work on that, and people in the region will be able to enjoy it for years to come.’ That’s something special. This piano is special; it’s a small part of our shared history, and now I’m a small part of its history. It’s an honor to have worked on it.”

Schossev and Manley’s contribution to the history of the MSV’s Broadwood piano is an interesting piece of the object’s story. It will soon return to the museum’s collection to begin the next chapter of its life. If you visit the museum after its return, you’ll certainly appreciate its form and presence, but perhaps you’ll take a moment to also consider the journey to this place in time the object has made. Perhaps you’ll even take a moment to appreciate the individuals—from those who built it originally to those who restored it recently —whose hands have given us this remarkable piece of Valley history.

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Author: Brian

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